It is nice to see the term "deep state" popping up more than ever in mainstream media discussions of the Trump transition. I prefer "permanent government," though, because it has fewer conspiratorial overtones, and this is not about conspiracy theories. In fact, it has become perhaps more open than ever.
Either way, it's an important concept and should be of interest to those who favor democratic governance in the United States, as well as a less violent foreign policy toward the rest of the world.
One day during last year's presidential campaign, I was talking with someone who had advised Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Nation mourns Colin Powell The Memo: Powell ended up on losing side of GOP fight Powell death leads to bipartisan outpouring of grief MORE, and he noted that President Obama had 400 people on his National Security Council. "Why so many?" I asked, somewhat naively.
"To go around the State Department, to go around the Pentagon, to go around the CIA …," he answered.
Yes, even President Obama, who did not seek to steer U.S, foreign policy very much from the mainstream consensus, and was vastly more of a diplomat and a conciliator than President Trump, had to outmaneuver the permanent government in the few instances in which he wanted to change course.
The State Department was bypassed during most of the White House's year-and-a-half of secret negotiations to restore normal diplomatic relations with Cuba. And this was a policy change that the majority of America's business class had wanted for probably more than two decades.
Now come Trump and his adviser, Steve Bannon, who — whatever their overarching beliefs or foreign policy goals, which are far from coherent — are further outside of the bipartisan imperial cluster of ideas than anyone who has occupied their respective positions in decades.
On some issues, most prominently in seeking better relations with Russia, Trump and Bannon are going against the dominant balance of forces that is aggressively hostile toward Russia, but not necessarily opposing a core strategy. There are people within the permanent government who, like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, have a more realistic view of U.S.-Russian relations than the current 1950s redux. (Also, the Trump administration's room for maneuver is presently restricted by the controversy over alleged Russian state interference on Trump's behalf in our 2016 elections.)
On Iran, too, the Trump/Bannon opening position of opposing the Iran nuclear deal is outside the current dominant view in the permanent government, but was a majority view just a few years ago.
But allies are a vital need for empires, as the historian Gabriel Kolko has documented for decades, and Europe — with 500 million people and a bigger economy than ours — is by far the most important. And so here the Trump/Bannon posture toward NATO, and their support for Brexit and various forces on the continent that could potentially cause the dissolution of the European Union, was considered far outside the pale.
And much of the Trump/Bannon rhetoric, including the "America First" slogan, is quite foreign to the foreign policy establishment — for reasons that are not entirely benign. For many in the conservative/liberal/neoconservative permanent government, it is perhaps not so much America First's historical connotations (pre-World War II isolationism) but the idea that country should come before empire that is most horrifying.
That is not to say that this is what Trump and Bannon really mean by "America First"; Trump is also pushing for a military buildup and seems eager to engage in unnecessary fights with China, for example.
But the America First rhetoric hurts the ear drums of the foreign policy elite, including much of the media, because they know that most Americans do not share their lust for world domination. That is the foreign policy establishment's brand of "America First," and they have marketed it, however implausibly, as maintaining a stable world order, promoting democracy, so-called free trade, human rights and other fine gifts to humanity.
There is a saying from the pre-internet days that you don't pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel. An update, which Trump and Bannon are learning the hard way: Don't pick fights with people who collect emails by the billions.
And so far, the permanent government is kicking their butts: With strategic leaks of classified information, they got rid of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump's national security adviser (who had serious fights with the intelligence community). Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who replaced him, was recommended by staff of the influential neoconservative Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Memo: Powell ended up on losing side of GOP fight A pandemic of hyper-hypocrisy is infecting American politics Virginia race looms as dark cloud over Biden's agenda MORE (R-Ariz.). With retired Gen. James "Mad Dog" Mattis at the Pentagon and retired Gen. John Kelly as head of Homeland Security, the main Cabinet positions of the "national security state" are now in control of people who — despite some idiosyncrasies — are rated PG (permanent government).
Going forward, it would be surprising if Bannon is able to have much influence over foreign policy. Time will tell, because there are a lot of leaks coming out of this administration, and we will likely find out if he is able to do more than move the needle a little bit.
Unfortunately, this is not necessarily good news for us at home, since it means Trump and Bannon will likely focus more on the damage they can do here, with attacks on immigrants, civil rights and working people, including the poor (e.g., cuts to Medicaid).
All this is not to overlook the real dangers that Trump and Bannon pose in the foreign policy arena. Trump's cavalier attitude toward the use of nuclear weapons, killing civilians, and torture and his overall belligerence are frightening. Bannon's apocalyptic worldview, which includes great wars and upheavals in the offing, more explicit American-Judeo-Christian-Western supremacy, and Islamophobia, should scare anyone.
But we the people have to keep our eyes on the prize. And the prize in foreign policy is not a return to a violent and dangerous mainstream/neoconservative cluster, with regard to Russia, the Middle East, the "War on Terror," Latin America or most of the world. Nor is it the permanent state of warfare favored by the permanent government, nor this unelected entity's semi-clandestine, now more open and heavyhanded control over intergovernmental relations.
We have to look beyond President Trump and Steven Bannon, and their adversaries in the permanent government, to democratic accountability in foreign policy. This will bring us fewer wars, arms races, and violent and covert interventions abroad, and a more peaceful and just world.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington and the president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of the book "Failed: What the 'Experts' Got Wrong About the Global Economy"(Oxford University Press, 2015). You can subscribe to his columns here.
The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.